Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Can We Trust the Gospels? by Peter J. Williams

Crossway, 2018, 153pp

'Gospel truth'. Really? Aren't the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, teaching, death and resurrection just made up stuff that no rational person should believe? That's the question biblical scholar Peter Williams seeks to address in this little book. He produces a convincing cumulative case for the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Few if any figures in the ancient world had so much written about them as Jesus of Nazareth. We not only have the witness of the four Gospels. Jesus is also mentioned in a number of non-Christian sources. These Roman and Jewish authors in no way intended intended to write favourably of the Christian faith.  Yet what they said bears out the essential facts concerning Jesus' life and death as recorded in the Gospels. These sources also describe Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and that the early church worshipped him as divine. 

Its is often suggested that the Gospels were written so long after the event that they can't be accurate. Like in the 'Chinese whispers' game, where a phrase is whispered into the ear of one person, who then passed it down the line to others. By the end of the game the phrase usually bears little resemblance to the one at the given at the beginning. 'Sausage, egg and chips' becomes 'postage stamps and crisps', or whatever. This idea is discounted by Williams. For starters, Jesus' treasured teachings weren't communicated in whispers to see what random stuff would come out the other end. They were committed to memory and handed on with great care. The author defends the view that the Gospels were written close the the period the describe, either by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John), or by writers who had access to eyewitness testimony (Mark and Luke). Even liberal scholars now accept an early dating of the Gospels. 

The chapter on Did the Gospel Authors Know their Stuff? is full of fascinating facts. The Evangelists certainly did. Their writings show deep familiarity with the Geography that forms the backdrop to Jesus' ministry.  For instance, local boy Matthew, Mark (based on Peter's testimony) and John refer to the 'Sea of Galilee', or simply 'the Sea'. Peter and John were fisherman on that stretch of water, so for them it was the sea. Luke who may well have hailed from Antioch near the Mediterranean refers to the same waters as 'the lake'. 

Williams delves into the way names are recorded in the Gospels, where the writers disambiguate names that were popular at the time. 'Jesus' was the sixth or seventh most popular Jewish Palestinian name in those days. Which is why when characters are recorded in the Gospels as speaking of Jesus  they often disambiguate, saying, 'Jesus of Nazareth' so listeners knew exactly which Jesus they were taking about. The quotes cited in the Gospels therefore have a contemporary ring to them. They were not made up after the event and placed in people's mouths for effect. When narrating what Jesus said or did the Gospel writers tend simply to say 'Jesus' without disambiguation, as they could be confident that their readers knew very well which Jesus they were talking about. 

As Williams points out, we don't get a sense that the Evangelists were deliberately corroborating each other's accounts. They weren't like criminals concocting their watertight alibis lest they be collared by the police. While there is overlapping material in the four Gospels (especially the 'Synoptics; Matthew, Mark and Luke'), each has their own unique touches. Williams highlights a number of 'undesigned coincidences' where one Gospel in supplying information that is missing from the others helps to fill out the picture. What Luke and John have to say about the sisters Mary and Martha is given a case in point. In different ways both Evangelists present Martha as down-to-earth and practical, while Mary is seen as the more contemplative sibling.  

Various questions that may cause people to doubt the truthfulness of the Gospels are also given attention. Do we have the actual words of Jesus? Has the text changed? What about contradictions? And so on. For me one of the most powerful arguments that Williams makes is about the person of Jesus himself. The one who emerges from the pages of the Gospels is clearly extraordinary in every way. Which is why the preacher from Nazareth continues to command our attention some 2,000 years after he waked on earth. It could be that the Gospel writers were literary geniuses who independently created this special character and put amazing words into his mouth. The simpler and more likely explanation is that Jesus was who they said he was, the Son of God in human form, John 20:30-31.

If you are interested in the Christian faith, but not yet convinced, this book may address some of your doubts. Believers will have their confidence in the Gospels confirmed. They will be able to use the author's arguments in discussing the faith with friends who may be sceptical about the Gospel records. Pastors reading this will have their understanding of the Evangelists' multifaceted witness to Jesus enriched, which will hopefully serve to make their preaching all the more persuasive. 

Gospel truth? Yes, really.